Britain's rethink of gambling

A new government asks for a review of gambling, especially betting machines and gambling ads that reach children. It should also look at weaning gamblers off a belief in luck as the road to riches.

Punters crowd around a bookmaker at Wimbledon Stadium in London.

Britain’s new government under Prime Minister Theresa May has decided that state-regulated gambling may be out of control. One sign: Personal losses from gambling rose 12 percent last year. Sports minister Tracey Crouch has asked for a review of the industry with the aim of “ensuring that people, particularly the young and vulnerable, are protected from the risk of gambling-related harm.”

Britain is not alone in its concern. Many governments have lately sought similar reviews. In France, for example, an official review released last month found the industry is badly regulated. A third of young people between 15 and 17 are gambling. About 5 percent of gamblers are either moderately or excessively addicted.

Such reviews are often difficult for governments because they rely on tax revenues from gambling. Such money is often cloaked in virtue by being designated for spending on sports, culture, or education. In Britain, however, the problems from gambling have become too difficult to ignore.

The government estimates up to 600,000 people in the UK are problem gamblers. Many are hooked on online gaming sites. But the immediate concern is a proliferation of fixed-odds betting terminals, especially in poorer areas. These machines allow someone to lose £100 pounds ($122) every 20 seconds. They are called the “crack cocaine” of betting.

The government is also worried about ads for gambling reaching children, as well the industry using deceptive ads about odds. More than a quarter of complaints to the government’s advertising watchdog relate to gambling ads.

The social costs are also adding up. The average gambling losses per household in Britain are now about £500, ($612) according to the Gambling Commission. Gamblers seeking counseling rose 24 percent between 2014 and 2015.

The website Divorce Only, which tracks uncontested divorce petitions, finds at least 1 in 5 petitions cite gambling as a cause for ending a marriage. A few years ago, only 1 in 15 petitions cited gambling as a reason.

As Britain conducts its review, it should also look at gambling’s toll on the country’s work ethic and drive for higher economic productivity. Promoting a belief in luck with the lure of quick riches goes against the values of a society based on merit and talent.

Gambling is a system designed to thrive on people losing – and losing more than money. Governments should do more than merely prevent harm from gambling. They must show that each person’s well-being comes from something better than a notion of chance.

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